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Dench puts the heart in 'Philomena'

On the job for 55 years, Judi Dench elevates everything she does, from M in the James Bond movies to the less intimidating but equally determined "little old Irish lady" who's the title character in "Philomena." Dench is not the only reason to see this unapologetic crowd-pleaser, but she is the best one.

As directed by the veteran Stephen Frears, the movie's "inspired by true events" narrative initially has trouble deciding what kind of film it wants to be, alternating between cheeky comedy and the more serious emotional moments inherent in the story of a woman looking for a child she was forced to give away in adoption. Although it ends up the least involving part of the film, "Philomena" does come by its comedy honestly. Co-star Steve Coogan, one of Britain's top comics, is not only Dench's co-star, he is also one of the film's producers (and co-writer with Jeff Pope), and his presence mandated a certain amount of mostly indifferent humor that gets the film off to an unsteady start.

But as "Philomena" gets deeper into its involving plot, it seems to gain confidence in the strength of its narrative and accepts the fact that telling a dramatic story is job one. While one can wish that some of the storytelling were less on the nose, the film's overall effectiveness is hard to deny.

A good part of the credit for this goes to Dench's performance as Philomena Lee — Phil, for short, a retired nurse with quite a story to tell. It is the genius of the actress' work that by bringing an instinctive dignity to her characterization, she creates someone who is simultaneously average and extraordinary.

MPAA rating: PG-13

Running time: 1:37

Opens: Wednesday

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